Voluntary compensation plan to save NHS millions in birth damage court cases


The Government is to launch a voluntary compensation scheme for parents whose children are damaged at birth as figures show the cost of settling claims has reached more than half a billion pounds.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he hopes to end the culture where going to court is an automatic "first step" and instead foster a culture of transparency so the NHS can learn from its mistakes.

Under the plans, parents who believe medical errors have caused severe damage to their children - such as cerebral palsy or brain damage - would be able to join a voluntary "rapid resolution and redress" scheme.

Their claim would be assessed by investigators working independently from the NHS trust where errors occurred, and they would quiz NHS staff and parents and look at medical records.

Their findings would be presented to a panel of legal and medical experts who would decide whether any compensation is warranted and arrange for payments to be made to the family.

The Government hopes the scheme - which would assess around 500 cases a year - will help dismantle what it sees as a "litigation culture". It would work out far cheaper for the NHS than the current route, which sees cases going to court or settled out of court, often for millions of pounds each.

Data from the NHS Litigation Authority shows the compensation bill to the NHS for errors around the time of birth is rising, reaching £509.3 million in 20105/16 - up from £393.2 million in 2014/15.

This includes damages plus the legal costs of dealing with claims and includes regular payments made due to previous years' settlements.

According to the NHS Litigation Authority, the legal costs claimed by solicitors working for families as a percentage of damages paid has risen in the past year and is "disproportionate" when compared with defence costs.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said the plan - which will be the subject of a consultation - would not "lock" parents into the scheme. This means they would still be able to go down the route of launching their own legal case against the NHS trust if they were unhappy with the voluntary scheme.

In a speech at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), Mr Hunt will also set out £8 million for training, with at least £40,000 available to each NHS trust in England.

A £250,000 maternity safety innovation fund will pilot new ideas for improving care, while maternity ratings for every part of England - using data that already exists - will be published.

Mr Hunt will tell how a voluntary compensation scheme running in Sweden has reduced serious avoidable birth injuries by around 50% in the last six to seven years.

According to the Department of Health, it currently takes 11.5 years on average for families to see a resolution to their case.

Other measures being unveiled include a new Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, modelled on the Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

A new tool will also standardise the investigation of every stillbirth and early baby death so lessons can be learned. 

Mr Hunt said: "Our NHS maternity staff do a fantastic job under huge pressure.

"But even though we have made much progress, our stillbirth rates are still amongst the highest in Western Europe and many on the front line say there is still too much of a blame culture when things go wrong - often caused by fear of litigation or worry about damage to reputation and careers.

"These comprehensive measures will give practical support to help trusts improve their approach to safety - and help to foster an open and transparent culture so that the courts become a last resort not an automatic first step.

"By learning from proven methods in countries like Sweden, we hope to achieve a dramatic reduction in the number of tragedies where babies are lost or injured for life."

The plans come after MPs shed tears as they told of miscarriage, stillbirth and the death of their babies in the first few days of life.  

In a Commons speech, Labour's Vicky Foxcroft spoke publicly for the first time about the death of her five-day-old daughter Veronica after the umbilical cord became wrapped around her neck.

James Taylor, head of policy and public affairs at disability charity Scope, said of the new plans: "Finding out that your child has been affected by a birth injury can be a very traumatic time for parents.

"So it is very positive that the Government will be listening to disabled people and their parents on how the NHS can better support families when serious issues do occur during birth."

Professor Lesley Regan, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said: "We welcome the Government's commitment and long-term investment into improving the safety of maternity care. The UK is a safe place to give birth, however, the pressures on maternity services are growing and stretched and understaffed services affect the quality of care provided to both mothers and babies.

"Doctors and midwives must train and work in multi-professional teams to ensure that women receive a high quality and safe service. Putting patients at the centre of care is paramount, however. Safety should always be the principal focus when making decisions around maternity care and childbirth.

"Reducing harm and the variation in care nationally must be a priority for all those providing maternity care."